In the last few weeks, I have felt a change happening. A shift from floor-level prostration to eye-to-eye gaze. I feel God asking me to stand up, and to stand up tall. To look him in the eyes. To look other people in the eyes. To fully embody my life.
This is not something that comes easy for me. However, I do feel the past two months have been like training wheels for this.
In the past two months, I have felt like a woman who woke up one day to discover she'd regressed into a preschooler. So many of the concepts I have been embracing for several years now -- convictions about grace, about the beauty of our collective humanness, about allowing ourselves to breathe in the knowledge that we do not, in our own strength, have to hold all things together -- seemed to have vanished. It was as though I was learning them afresh from the beginning.
Although, really, it was a relearning. I was relearning core precepts from a new place, this time with different, and what often felt like higher, stakes. And as much as I'd like to fight against this thought, I think part of life's journey is going to be more of the same: learning something, then relearning it in a new context. Feeling like a three-year-old all over again. Gaining strength, then regressing to regrow our limbs, or perhaps just grow them stronger than they grew the first (or second, or third, or fourth) time around.
In the last two months, while I have been working on projects that testify to what I say I believe, I have had to test whether I truly believe them by applying them back to myself. As I worked and reworked a business plan rooted in my conviction that each person's life is worth knowing, cultivating, celebrating, and embracing . . . as I stood before a group of business professionals and testified to the value of this idea . . . as I wrote a mini-book that describes what I have so far learned is the essence of grace . . . as I did all these things, I had to receive and walk in the grace I preached. I had to accept the limits of my own humanity and believe such limits didn't devalue me. I had to believe I carry a beauty that goes beyond my performance each day.
Today is yet another object lesson in this direction.
At noon today I'll be processing through a graduation ceremony at which I've been asked to give a speech. I've never given a speech before, and, in preparation, the thought of bringing something of value to a roomful of strangers completely flabbergasted me. What could I say that would even matter in a few short minutes? Why would they want to listen to me, anyway? Who the heck am I?
But then I started to wonder about each of those people. What might they need to hear? Given the life I've lived, what can I uniquely offer? Couched in those terms, the intention for this speech became quickly clear. And while I'm scared to do it, while I fear boring those receiving it, while I have no idea what difference, if any, it will make . . . I'm doing it anyway. Offering the words of this speech in public is a chance to embody what it says.
In a few short hours, this will be my offering.
In thinking about what to share with you today, I found myself wondering what I could possibly say to a room full of mostly strangers. And I realized all I could hope to do was speak to you from the one experience each of us collectively share: that of being human.
What does it mean to live human lives? This is not an easy question to answer, nor do I presume to fully know its answer. But experience and reflection have taught me some aspects of what it does and does not mean to be human, which I would like to share with you today.
Eight years ago, on a hot day very much like this one, in a ceremony very much like this one, I graduated in Southern California with my bachelor’s degree. Sitting in that graduation ceremony on that day, I had every expectation that the world was opening its doors for me to enter in, to participate, and to leave my mark. Perhaps you, graduates, are feeling that way today.
With all of the energy, education, ambition, and talent I could muster, I felt ready—ready to make an impression on the landscape of this life, ready for my life to mean something.
So here is what I did. I took two jobs. I worked during the day as the staff editor for a non-profit that carried both a domestic and international presence, and I worked in the evenings as the writing director for a university honors program. During the day I was cranking out editorial project after editorial project, while at night I was meeting with student after student and grading paper after paper.
Needless to say, I became utterly exhausted very quickly. But I felt I was doing the right and good thing. I wanted to make my mark and offer my contribution, and this was how I could do it: by finding what I did well, and by exploiting it to the fullest measure.
The only trouble was, I soon found myself equating what I did with who I was. My identity had become bound up in my work. How I performed had become a measure of my worth. If I finished projects ahead of deadline, I gained praise and sometimes a merit increase in pay. If I lacerated a student paper, my colleagues admired my aptitude and students came to fear my pen. My stellar performances made me feel powerful.
But I was totally missing the point. I thought I was serving my talents well and helping to make a contribution, but my actions were really rooted in selfishness—wanting to show how fast I could complete projects, wanting my colleagues to think I was invaluable, proving to students what I knew so they could follow suit. It was selfish and alienating, but it took me a while to see that.
And you know what?
At the root of all that striving, at the root of all that self-preservation, was a lingering question that haunted me every day.
Am I valuable, just as I am?
Are you valuable, just as you are?
The answer is yes.
I want to share something with you, graduates—something that, as we go out from this place to begin the next chapter of our stories, it will often be easy to forget.
What I want to share is this.
Your worth is not dependent on your work. It does not take multiple jobs, long hours, superior performance, or movement up the ladder to determine your true worth as a human being. You are more than what you do. Yes, you are a human being who does things, but you are also a human being with a heartbeat . . . with a personality . . . with experiences and memories. You have likes and dislikes . . . and opinions. You have feelings.
All of these things make you human, part of the human experience, worth more than what you produce.
It will be easy to forget this in the days ahead. The pace of the world and the pressure to succeed will compete wholeheartedly with this view.
But today, I am inviting you into the human conversation. It’s a conversation that values who you are, not what you do. It’s a conversation that helps you value other people for their humanness, too, for being more than what they produce. It’s a conversation that’s countercultural but essential for the survival of what it means to be truly human.
I hope you’ll join me in this human conversation, wherever life takes you in the days and years ahead, with all the courage and bravery it requires to embrace yourself and other people for being more than what you—or they—produce. I hope you’ll embrace being fully human.